After almost five months, scenes of protesters running from riot police through streets filled with makeshift barricades are all too familiar to anyone living in Hong Kong. Now, an upcoming VR game aims to let people outside the city experience life as a front-line protester.

Setting trash on fire, being chased by police amid a flurry of tear gas -- just another weekend for protesters in Hong Kong. (Picture: Blitzchung/Twitch)

From the name alone, it’s clear where Liberate Hong Kong’s loyalties lie. To the developer, the game isn’t a game; it is itself a part of the protest movement, taking the fight beyond the streets of Hong Kong and to online gaming platforms like Steam.

The game is slated to launch on Steam as early as November, when another pro-protest game -- a dystopian visual novel called Karma -- is also set to be released on the same platform. 

It’s not the first time games and politics have mixed. It’s not even the first time games and the Hong Kong protests have mixed. Last month, Hearthstone esports player Blitzchung said a Hong Kong protest slogan in a post-game interview, earning him a hefty fine and a ban. And Google decided to pull a pro-protest game called The Revolution of Our Times from the Google Play Store for violating the platform’s “sensitive events policy.”

But it may create an awkward situation for Steam. The platform has long been known for an extremely hands-off approach to regulating content, and the backlash against Blizzard shows that gamers in the West are willing to speak out against what they see as appeasement of China. But Steam also has an estimated 30 million users in China, a country where it does not officially operate, and where people are very much against the protests.

Indeed, the lines here are blurry. Just look at Google: After removing the pro-protest game, it later resurfaced on Google Play. As of publication time, it has yet to be taken down again.

In its current form, Liberate Hong Kong has very limited gameplay elements. You can only explore a limited area, crouch to avoid rubber bullets, and throw tear gas canisters. (You get one point for tossing the canisters at the police.)

You also can’t win the game, but you can certainly lose, either by being shot by a rubber bullet or by being arrested.

When you toss a tear gas canister back at the police, you get one point. (Picture: Blitzchung/Twitch)

One of the reasons the game is so bare is that it was created so quickly. The developers only started making the game in the last month, being inspired by Blitzchung’s Hearthstone protest.

“We saw that it only took Blitzchung chanting the slogan for five scant seconds and how the game developer responded subsequently to have such a huge effect,” said the game’s spokesperson, who wishes to remain anonymous.

“So we started to ask ourselves: What if there’s an actual product that centers on the protests? How would the gaming community respond in that case? That is the initial motivation of making this game,” she said.

The developer hopes it will keep the global gaming community talking about the Hong Kong protests. But they also said they wanted to release the game to test the boundaries.

“We also want to know where the bottom line is,” the spokesperson said. If the game isn’t approved, “it would indirectly reflect how much control China has over the whole gaming community.”

After all, Google removed Revolution of Our Times when Google Play isn’t even available in China. But Steam, despite not officially being in China, has plenty to lose if the country punishes it. It’s not blocked, so it has millions of Chinese gamers using its platform, and even accepts the country’s major mobile payment options WeChat Pay and Alipay. And Steam is also working on a store specifically for China.

(Abacus is owned by the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba, an affiliate of Alipay owner Ant Financial.)

The Revolution of Our Times is a text-based decision-making game. (Picture: Spinner of Yarns)

But Steam might also be more permissive than Google. The platform has long prided itself on its liberal content policies, which allow “everything” except for games Valve -- the company behind Steam -- decides are “illegal, or straight up trolling.”

This laissez-faire approach has gotten Steam into trouble before. Just earlier this year, it found itself in hot water after a game called Rape Day -- in which gamers play as a sociopath who rapes women during a zombie apocalypse -- was listed on the platform. The ensuing backlash was big enough to get the game pulled by Steam before its launch, which has caused some people to question Valve’s dedication to its own rules.

While games about the Hong Kong protests are a far cry from a game that arguably glorifies rape, Valve has shown that it has a limit. Other companies with a significant consumer base in China have folded under pressure before.

Apple has controversially censored or removed content many times. The company recently took down a Hong Kong protest map app from its App Store, claiming that it enabled protesters to target police.

But the developers of Liberate Hong Kong point to the upcoming game Karma as a positive sign, as the game already has a page on Steam and it’s set to release in November. The visual novel is a dystopian story “inspired by the sadness and sorrow in Hong Kong,” and developers say proceeds for the first six months will be donated to support the protests, although without specifying where the money will be going.

Karma is a dystopian visual novel that looks nothing like Hong Kong, judging from the game’s screenshots. (Picture: Herstory Indie Game Development/Steam)

Since Blizzard punished Blitzchung, many gamers have been quite vocal about the Hong Kong protests. Some argue that they are concerned about self-censorship from gaming companies to appease China.

But no matter what Valve does, it seems there’s no solution that will appease gamers both inside and outside China.